Luo Fei (Curator, Artistic Director at TCG Nordica)
After several changes, our eleven participating Yunnan artists finally settled on the name “Sleepers” for this exhibition. This name denotes inconspicuousness, diligence, training and experience, and it also makes the allusion that these people are under cover in a certain environment, waiting for action, which fits with the real state of mind among the artists in this exhibition. This word calls to mind two other words, “sleeper cell” and “prison break”.
The widespread popularity of the Chinese TV series Sleepers illustrates the nature of our interest in historical truth. Toss in the American hit series Prison Break, and we’ve got two main courses that once again gently place people’s love for conspiracy theories on the table.
Conspiracy theories have two types of sources. One is secular; liberalist political science is highly skeptical of human nature and state power. Where there is power, there is conspiracy. Examples of this include the recent widespread conspiracy theory that the global financial crisis was actually carefully planned by a certain American corporation. There is also the theory that the US government planned the 9/11 attacks to manufacture an excuse for war. The most famous conspiracy theory is the one that John F. Kennedy was assassinated by a secret American government organization. Another source for conspiracy theories is the magnification of certain concepts of Christianity. The theory goes that Satan secretly controls the world, and that every event and symbol is part of the war in the spirit world, ideas influenced by the concept of the kingdom of heaven and the apocalypse. One such conspiracy theory was that the old logo of Proctor & Gamble contained the numbers “666”, and so the company was therefore controlled by Satan worshippers.
The grasp of conspiracy theory in Chinese culture is in no way inferior to that of America. Aside from Sleepers, there is also War and Beauty, Emperor Kangxi, Yongzheng Dynasty and Infernal Affairs (remade by Martin Scorsese as The Departed), as well as ancient and highly developed conspiratorial methods such as the “hooking method”, The Book of the Long and Short and Machiavellian military stratagems. Writer Ran Yunfei has said that The Art of War and all Chinese stratagems boil down to just five words: pitfalls, disguises, twists, deceptions and entrapment. Though this isn’t a pleasant thought, consider our educational environment – from preschool to elementary school, college to workplace, no place is lacking in intrigue or positioning.
Philosopher Karl Popper explained conspiracy theories as the “typical result of the secularization of religious superstitions”. He said that “Homer conceived the power of the gods in such a way that whatever happened on the plain before Troy was only a reflection of the various conspiracies on Olympus. The conspiracy theory of society is just a version of this theism, of a belief in gods whose whims and wills rule everything. It comes from abandoning God and then asking: ‘Who is in his place?’ His place is then filled by various powerful men and groups – sinister pressure groups, who are to be blamed for having planned the great depression and all the evils from which we suffer.”
Unfortunately, people would rather live in fear of a conspiracy behind everything bad that happens, rather than that there is a hidden grace behind every story. The tattered, horrified mental outlook of contemporary man is abundantly clear, as if one day we are certainly bound to capsize the boat in the sewer. So, is there some form of grace that can overcome the conspiracy? Is there a shore of respite that can replace the sewer? The philosophical implications of Prison Break are more suited to the aspirations of “sleepers”. It’s just like one poet wrote: “the most careful prison escape plan is hatched in the mother’s womb.”
In The Gospel According to Matthew, Jesus says to be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves. This touches on the issue of moral character among sleepers. If these eleven artists are really what they profess to be, then they must have sleeper motives, namely, they are laying low in their environments or systems, shrewdly seeking out the opportunity to find their own unique artistic languages. Luckily, their plots are directed at art, not at other people.
Yang Yijiang and Sha Zhibin, sleepers hiding out in an academic aesthetic, focus on their artistic conceptions; their image styles fall under the law-abiding category. Yang Yijiang uses the subtle, exploratory decoration of body models to touch sensitive nerves. Sha Zhibin uses elegant and melancholic grayscale arrangements between bodies and still objects and bodies and landscapes, to create image associations between them.
Adam Lik Lui, Xiang Weixing and Zhang Yongning, sleepers in the national ideology, all turn their memories and thoughts on the nation’s history into familiar yet strange imagery. Adam Lik Lui’s Lost series places a young, lovely post-80s girl in an abandoned factory from the Great Leap Forward period. The posed photographs highlight the contrasts and absurdities between the two eras. Xiang Weixing’s Idol Box series uses relief carving to place events such as the National People’s Congress and beauty pageants into television sets. The choice of the name “idol box” keenly points out the false faith that arises from people treating media events as idols. Zhang Yongning’s Badge series turns images of children into collector’s badges of political leaders, using this to focus on common individuals, and to insinuate that the notion of political intrigue is now spreading to children.
Wang Yuhui, Zhu Xiaolin, Zhang Zhimin and Hu Jun are sleepers concealed in everyday city life. Wang Yuhui uses the life and play of a humorous dog to present sarcastic takes on the setting of our lives. Zhu Xiaolin’s Life of Games depicts a feeling of senselessness in life. Zhang Zhimin uses a somewhat pained eye to focus on unnoticed things and unexpected scenes. Hu Jun uses depictions of tired and cold marriages to get us to rethink traditional values. These works are all marked by biographical notes, maintaining both affinity and wariness towards everyday city life.
Then there are Li Xuefeng and Zhao Gang, who are sleepers in historical imagery. Li Xuefeng uses a mosaic filter to examine classic historical figures and scenes, using visual blurring to sharpen historical memory. Zhao Gang takes images from the old model operas of the Cultural Revolution and inserts cartoony toy imagery into them.
Because of their expectations towards art, artists are forced to embed themselves as sleepers within reality, from which they can gain a mirror for creation; because of their expectations towards life, many people are forced to embed themselves as sleepers in their situations, from which they can gain a map for making a “prison break”.
These eleven artists are all faithfully playing the role of “sleepers”, sharing their experiences “in hiding” with everyone. Since ancient times, artists have always been a group of active sleepers. They engage in the act of creation through games, explorations, thoughts, accumulated experiences and constantly refined language, all in hopes of making a “prison break” from reality. This process is long, arduous, dangerous and debilitating, with the only comfort coming from the breakthroughs, large or small, that are achieved through creation. The saving grace of art is that it provides these “sleepers” with the idea of a shore to rest on, so that they can imagine the possibility of redemption somewhere beyond reality. This is the enchanting thing about art: the expectations of the “sleepers”, and the great and just “conspiracy theory”.
The above long-winded rant is the foreword for the “Sleepers: Eleven Yunnan Artist Contemporary Artistic Experimentation” exhibition.
December 13, 2009, Spring City
translated by Jeff Crosby